VOLKSWAGEN, like most of us, wanted the wild Golf R400 to live. It lured Friedrich Eichler, the man who designed the AMG A45’s world-beating four-cylinder engine, to Wolfsburg, then built a mean-looking concept car and hustled undisguised prototypes around the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
This review was first published in MOTOR's September 2019 issue.
But then Dieselgate happened. VW forfeited billions of dollars, in fines, and among the wide-spanning consequences of this punishment, including a huge scale-back in racing, the reality of a 400-horsepower (294kW) production Golf R evaporated.
Since then, rumours have circled that the eighth-generation Golf R will target these sort of outputs, but it will rely on hybrid technology. So, as always in situations like these, the R400’s legacy to unlock the EA888 engine’s potential was entrusted to the aftermarket.
That’s why we’re in Brisbane, in an industrial district, to meet a Golf R Mk7.5 that has revived the R400 concept while, in classic tuner style, taking it even further. Harding Performance built it, you see, and as RacingLine’s main representative in Australia, it flaunts the aftermarket brand’s latest weapons-grade enhancements.
Hot Tuner 2016: Harding Performance VW Golf R
Key among them is a Stage 3 turbocharger kit that has inflated outputs to 362kW and 584Nm. That’s almost 500 horsepower. At the hubs. It could make more if you’re willing to crack open your motor and gearbox.
But there are a few modifications you’ll need to achieve these figures. First of them is an R600 intake kit that hides a snorkel in the top front grille to inhale more air. It feeds an IHI ‘hybrid’ turbocharger stuffed with internals designed to secret specs.
Boost is next – lots of it. The turbo runs at a massive 29psi, so you’ll also need an upgraded fuel pump, intercooler and a fatter exhaust that places a less restrictive catalytic converter downstream. Even the seven-speed DSG automatic needs its brain reflashed with software that can manage higher torque and employ a more aggro launch control.
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As a rolling showroom for Harding Performance’s products, new 19-inch wheels slash weight and add style. They span an inch wider than the stock items and drop 2kg of important rotating mass from each corner.
They’re complemented by HP’s handling pack. Sport springs drop the car onto a menacing stance, and make sure the gummy Yokohama AD08Rs claw into the road like they’re supposed to. Swaybars, camber plates and alloy control arms round out the handling changes. But that’s not all.
Golf R single-piston sliding brake calipers have acquitted themselves admirably in past tests, but repeatedly uncorking this much energy on a racetrack, or even a winding pass, will quickly expose their flaws. So, to shore up the Golf R’s stopping power, HP has thrown their trust behind Chinese-owned LeMyth’s bolt-on carbon brake kit, which inserts carbon-ceramic discs and pads within the stock calipers.
The interior disguises the car’s lurking potential even better than the exterior. It’s completely stock inside, save for upgraded paddles behind the steering wheel’s horizontal spokes. And starting the engine doesn’t rouse a loud exhaust tone, since it is adjustable and programmed to change with each driving mode.
With the Golf’s nose aimed at the mountain ranges, we pull away and it’s still noticeably subdued and refined. There’s no boom, or drone, and the powertrain operates with OEM smoothness. Brake feel is a bit mute while the pads are cold, as most carbon-ceramic systems are, and the ride presents a worrying issue.
You’d hope the stock dampers would retain compliance, but their rates are mismatched to the springs. The dampers run out of travel before they can cushion the blow. It’s bearable for a while, but patience – and your vertebrae – will soon wear thin.
Luckily, the road soon clears and we get to focus on the launch control. The sequence is like any other Golf R: switch to Race mode, engage Sport DSG mode, relax the ESC, stomp the brake and throttle. The revs climb, then hold, and you clear the brake. The car hesitates as if it’s calculating how to deploy its grunt. Then suddenly the DSG clutches bite, the turbo sucks hard and the car launches forward.
It rapidly dispatches the first two gears, keeping you pinned in the seat, and booms with a deep growl. Sort of like a baby grizzly bear clearing its throat in anger. With the throttle pinned it continues at a phenomenal rate. Third and fourth gear reveal the savagery of its power, which builds like a wave. There’s a huge energy pushing you forward early in the rev range, but it’s most intimidating just before its peak at the redline.
While it feels like there’s enough grip to handle another 100kW and 100Nm, it’s clear the limiting factor in this whole equation is the stock motor.
The bigger turbo has clearly shifted the powerband along the rpm range and could keep hauling way past the 6750rpm rev limit – a scary thought when the speedo numbers already climb like a slot machine’s.
Guy Harding, the owner of Harding Performance, claims it will blast to 100km/h from rest in 3.2sec. That is with roll-out applied, so in reality it’s more like 3.4sec. You do have to manage the lag through the twisty bits as well, snicking down a gear on those lovely metal paddles to keep the turbo blowing hard. Thankfully, the retuned DSG is faultless through all this.
The brakes, to our surprise, are also fuss-free. Sure, they bite a little sudden, but the car repeatedly pulls up hard into corners.
A Civic Type R will outdazzle it in the twisties, but sticky tyres and a lower centre of gravity add welcome weight to the R’s light steering while tying it down better to the road. Meanwhile, the sway bars and springs make the rear easier to activate under brakes.
We’re not fans of the ride quality on offer, but some added body control, even if there’s a hint of unwelcome rebound at high speeds, helps settle a car with this much power. We would suggest ditching the springs from this $2290 handling pack altogether or trying to find dampers suited specifically to them.
And while the brakes are mighty impressive at fighting fade when unleashing this 500hp-odd 1450kg brick up and down mountains, the whopping $18,000 price tag is difficult to accept, especially when they lack a ’roided set of calipers. We reckon a big brake kit with steel rotors could do a similar job for a third of the price.
We’re also not sure about the effectiveness of its oil management system. Priced at $1995, with an oil cooler, it’s claimed to be used on VW TCR race cars. Still, we’re not driving anywhere near those kinds of extremes, and smoke leaks from the exhaust. We’re told high loads can force unemptied oil from the catch can into the cylinders. It’s apparently normal.
If you’re okay with that, we’d definitely recommend the turbocharger. Yes, it’s a little too big for the motor, but the power gain is remarkable considering the day-to-day driveability. We’d bet it’s spinning the flywheel with almost twice as much grunt as a stock Golf R, yet it would smoothly ferry the in-laws around.
At around $15K with supporting mods (installed), the Stage 3 Turbo kit is steep. But add an exhaust and some big steel brakes and it will easily stay with a stock Audi TT RS. Perhaps more importantly, though, it might rest your desires for a Golf R400.
Like: Monstrous top-end; strong brakes; solid traction; great driveability; refinement
Dislike: Jarring ride; turbo lag; was blowing a bit of smoke during our test; brakes pricey
HP Volkswagen Golf R 7.5 specs
Engine 1984cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Power 362kW @ 6400rpm (at the hubs)
Torque 584Nm @ 4810rpm (at the hubs)
0-100km/h 3.2sec (estimated)
Price $97,185 (as tested)